Written by: Tito Carpi, Tonino Ricci
Directed by: Tonino Ricci
Starring: Treat Williams, Janet Agren, and Antonio Fargas
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Still waters run deep, dark and deadly.
Any discussion of Italy’s killer shark output is rightfully bookended by Enzo Castellari’s The Last Shark and Bruno Mattei’s Cruel Jaws, the most prominent monuments to the country’s flagrant disregard for copyrights and intellectual property. In between, fellow schlock mavens Lamberto Bava and Joe D’Amato tried their hands at it, effectively helping to form the Mount Rushmore of Italian killer shark movies. And then there’s Night of the Sharks, an Italian/Mexican/Spanish production that’s even more obscure for a reason: where the aforementioned efforts thrive on batshit chicanery, this one is just sort of mildly amuses from time to time. You sense something wild lurking in its depths, but it never really surfaces on a consistent basis, leaving you with a movie that sounds incredible in theory but falls a bit flat in practice.
To wit: we begin down in Cancun, where beach bum David Ziegler (Treat Williams) spends his days lounging about like a scoundrel with a heart of gold. When he’s not swindling alongside best buddy Paco (Antonio Fargas), he’s visiting the kids at a local church. He also happens to be locked into a long-standing grudge with “Cyclops,” a real asshole of a local shark that’s long terrorized the coast. Otherwise, though, life is good, at least until his brother James (Carlo Mucari)—residing in Miami and practically an entirely different movie—brings trouble down to his tropical paradise. After spending five years working alongside a shady businessman/mobster, James has stumbled upon some incriminating evidence that he’s archived on a CD for the express purposes of blackmail. Hand over $2 million worth of diamonds, or the world will learn about the president colluding with bad elements (hmm…), he insists, seemingly unaware that this could at all backfire. It does so spectacularly: before he’s able to even deplane in Cancun, a sniper’s bullet blows up his entire plane, leaving him to cryptically warn his brother with his dying words about the trouble headed his way.
Less a creature feature and more a cut rate espionage/action “thriller,” Night of the Sharks barely feigns to live up to its title: at one point, the locals are engaged in a ritual dance, and Paco informs David that this will be a favorable night of the sharks, whatever that means. I’m still left wondering because it literally never figures into the plot, nor do the sharks for the most part. Instead, should you choose to board Night of the Sharks (you probably should not, but I am in no position to judge), prepare to strap in for lame, conspiratorial spy movie “intrigue” for most of the running time. This mostly amounts to watching Eurotrash scumbags issuing vague, threatening commands or blackmailing David’s ex-wife Liz (Janet Agren) into sidling up next to her former lover to swipe both the incriminating CD and the diamonds back for their criminal organization. Bursts of action—like a quick car chase—punctuate the dull proceedings, briefly enlivening the movie before returning you to its typical doldrums.
Night of the Sharks almost takes the vibe of a hangout movie at times—certainly, it’s among the most laid back blackmail/revenge/assassination movies I’ve ever seen. Its idiosyncratic digressions bring some measure of refreshing charm: at one point, the script reserves an entire chunk of the runtime for a bizarre contest that finds Paco inserting his hand into a captured shark long enough to claim a prize. He wins by cheating, igniting a huge brawl that doesn’t end until David informs the entire bar that he’ll buy them a round of beers. What a guy. At times, it feels like we’ve just stumbled onto the latest zany adventure for David and Paco, a couple of good dudes who always find a way to do the right thing. The film takes on an episodic feel, with these two sorting through one ordeal or another, be it coming down with a case of the runs or surviving an assassination attempt. Night of the Sharks contains multitudes, even if it barely contains sharks.
It does, however, boast an abundance of Treat Williams, an underappreciated leading man who deserves more recognition. He’s charming as hell here as David, a rascal with a strict moral code: visiting orphans is essential, while firearms are to be sworn off, never to be used, even when a gang of assassins has descended upon your home to kill you. David is so wholesome that you can barely believe he’d have any rivals, much less one that takes the form of a goddamn shark. In the film’s best—and most bizarre subplot—he continually does battle with Cyclops, who attempts to eat unsuspecting tourists, much to David’s extreme chagrin. When you watch him dive heroically into the ocean to rescue someone, you sense that this isn’t the first time he’s had to thwart the beast’s plan. Undeterred, Cyclops later tries to swipe David’s boat, prompting him to again spring into action to save his vessel. “Fuck you!” he cries out as the shark swims off with its tail tucked between its metaphorical legs, a line delivered with complete and utter conviction by Williams. It’s the moment that the film wins you over, if only ever so slightly: it’s such a dopey exchange, but it captures the weirdly good-natured heart of a film that’s literally about a bunch of scumbags willing to murder anyone to destroy incriminating evidence.
Because Williams is responsible for most of that charm, the film’s best stretch is easily the one that finds him fending off his would-be assassins. It’s here we learn that firearms—which are offered to him by a priest, by the way—are a no-go, but Molotov cocktails are quite acceptable. So, too, are knives, attempted vehicular manslaughter, and allowing your foes to be eaten by sharks (it’s a love-hate relationship with Cyclops, as it turns out). For about 15 minutes or so, Night of the Sharks realizes its unhinged schlock potential, indulging the sort of whims that rumble beneath the surface, just waiting to spring forth and entertain you with shoot-em-up outbursts and deranged fire stunts. I’d refer to it as the film’s crescendo, but Night of the Sharks actually lingers on for an entirely different climax that finds David descending into the water to recover his brother’s stolen loot, only to do battle with Cyclops one last time. Incredible footage of what I hope is Williams’s stunt double swimming alongside an actual shark makes for a pretty gutsy scene because it’s astounding to think that someone could have actually died in the service of making this movie. Unfortunately, the multiple sharks likely did suffer for it, as I doubt any claims to humane treatment of them would hold up to any sort of scrutiny.
That’s a sleazy bummer note dragging down an otherwise harmless, largely unmemorable film. I know a lot of the stuff I’ve described here—and I haven’t even mentioned the hilariously telegraphed “twist” ending—paints Night of the Sharks as some unsung gonzo shark movie that needs to be recovered and reappraised, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s dully photographed, and its score often resembles something you might have heard in an 80s arcade game, compounding the schizophrenic nature of both the tone and script. I am morbidly curious about how it might play to a cult midnight movie crowd; I could see this one coming to life with the right audience that would appreciate its insane outbursts. Confined to a bargain DVD set on home video, though, it underwhelms, especially when you consider it in the context of Italy’s infamous killer shark tradition: let’s just say co-writer/director Tonino Ricci is no Bruno Mattei. Most would argue that’s usually a good thing, but that’s not so here, a fact that just about summarizes how haywire this entire scene is.
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